If the current wave of right-wing populism sweeping over Europe continues, one casualty of the political situation could be the loss of films like “Toni Erdmann” (2016). The quirky dramedy, which has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is as much the product of the European Union and its globalization as it is the brainchild of director Maren Ade. The central conflict of “Toni Erdmann” concerns “busy business lady” Ines (Sandra Hüller) who has become semi-estranged from her prankster father Winfried (Peter Simonischek). The premise is a unique product of the cross-cultural and the pan-European business and social ties that politicians like Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and others are seeking to break up in the interest of preserving the national identities of their countries.
Ines works as a downsizing consultant in Romania and is hoping to get promoted to a more lucrative account in Shanghai. Upon meeting her father for the first time in months in Germany, the two can only exchange brief pleasantries before she must be called away for a teleconference with her arrogant boss in Romania. But when Winfried’s beloved dog dies, he spontaneously decides to visit his daughter at work. After a short, awkward visit, Winfried realizes the depth of his daughter’s workaholic unhappiness and decides that now is the best time for them to reconnect. Thus, he returns to Romania the next night wearing a dark wig and false teeth, introducing himself to Ines and her friends as life coach “Toni Erdmann,” and the farcical comedy proceeds to follow their various adventures and exploits over the next week.
Despite its somewhat conventional father-daughter plotline,“Toni Erdmann” is a film that would not exist without the long history of globalization and lingering after-effects of center-left domination in European politics over much of the early 2000s. It explores Western Europe’s commercial links to the industrial economies of former Eastern Bloc countries like Romania. Cultural decay in Romania, caused by both the oppressive rule of communist leaders like Nicolae Ceausescu as well as the influx of Western-style commercialization and shady business deals, infiltrates the many dealings of Ines’ company. In one scene, she argues with Winfried at an oil site over the treatment of corporate downsizing at her company. He attempts to intervene when his actions lead to the firing of one of the workers. Ines tells him to stop, reminding him, “The more people he fires, the fewer I have to fire.”
The treatment of this cosmopolitan, globalized lifestyle is somewhat ambivalent; Ines’ unhappiness seems to suggest that this lifestyle leads to a lack of fulfillment. On the other hand, Winfried, whose humor and pranks are uniquely German and who is tied to Germany’s country and culture, is essentially just as unhappy as she is.
Ade seems to take a neutral position that emphasizes the personal cost of both political philosophies. The understanding that Ines and Winfried come to at the film’s ending makes a more telling argument: that the global and the national can be reconciled.